White Heat: A history of Britain in the Swinging Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook

Lawn bowls were all the rage
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The Independent Culture

As an indication of the greater sense of freedom he felt was engendered by the 1960s, the writer Barry Miles, who ran a counter-culture shrine called the Indica bookshop, cited the fact that local councils no longer chained up playground swings on Sundays. The salient question is whether such a change was the result of a revolution in values or whether it would have come about anyway in a mature, evolving society.

The historian Dominic Sandbrook (who mentions Miles, though not the swings) would almost certainly incline to the latter interpretation. Much of this book - the second in a two-volume history of the period from 1956 to 1970 - argues that, contrary to received wisdom, British politics, society and culture in the so-called Swinging Sixties were predominantly characterised by continuity, conservatism and conformity. Progress was often of a very petit-bourgeois kind: indeed, Sandbrook points to caravanning as "one of the great unheralded success stories of the Sixties, representing a shift from collective to individual leisure". This second volume lives up to the promise of the first, its lapidary judgements being interspersed with piquant detail and plenty of choice anecdotes.

"No government had a more impressive academic pedigree" than Harold Wilson's Labour administration of 1964-70, Sandbrook reminds us. "Eleven of the 23 original Cabinet ministers, including Wilson himself, had been to Oxford, and by 1966 the Cabinet boasted no fewer than eight Oxford Firsts, a British political record." Yet none of these brilliant minds foresaw the degree of trouble that would be caused by persistent pressure on sterling and a belated devaluation. It didn't occur to them that this might undermine their programme for economic reform; nor did they comprehend that the pressure on sterling was the result not so much of the balance of payments deficit (which the Treasury overestimated at £800m) as of Britain's military burden overseas ("east of Suez"), something for which they had conceived no long-term policy of disengagement. Yet the next six years was to see this administration of Rolls-Royce intellects riven with bitter rivalries, petty squabbles, paranoia and ineptitude.

Sandbrook is an inveterate demolisher of myths, though he invariably delivers his crushing blows in a measured, low-key manner that invites reflection rather than contradiction. For all Wilson's rhetoric about white heat and technological innovation, Sandbrook notes that Britain's spending on non-military scientific research and development in the Fifties had been by no means shameful, increasing from £7m in 1945 to over £150m in 1964.

He is always ready with a sobering statistic and he enjoys chewing on a meaty survey. Considering a survey of leisure pursuits in the Huddersfield area, he records that "brass bands... were still as prevalent as ever, with 36 of them competing for recruits within a 15-mile radius, and continued to attract new blood. Crown Green bowls, meanwhile, was still staggeringly popular: Huddersfield alone had 33 different bowling clubs and 5,000 regular bowlers, which meant that it was easily the most popular participatory sport in the area."

Another statistic with which he brings notions of cultural upheaval crashing down to earth is the millions of Britons who regularly watched The Black and White Minstrel Show on BBC television. Its 20-year grip on our viewing tastes (from 1958 to 1978) demonstrated that nostalgia, as Sandbrook states, "was one of the most powerful forces in post-war British culture". As further evidence of this, he points to the high-brow costume drama The Forsyte Saga. Originally shown on BBC2, the signal of which was only received by those who could afford new television sets, The Forsyte Saga was so well-received that all 26 episodes were subsequently repeated on BBC1 in the autumn of 1968, for a regular audience of 18m.

Even such icons of the Swinging Sixties as the Beatles are celebrated as much for their embrace of the past as for their forward-looking innovations. "Their recording history makes little sense outside its British context, from the traditions of the music hall and the Goons to the bohemian scene of the Fifties and the satire boom," says Sandbrook. Yet at the same time, paradoxically, the Beatles "were more sensitive to their cultural context, popularising everything from mysticism to moustaches, and no group better reflected the fashions of the day." Similarly, the Rolling Stones offstage were apprentice country gentlemen and Sandbrook relishes the anecdote that the bibliophile Keith Richards "was later forced to cancel several concert dates after falling off a ladder while searching for Leonardo da Vinci's book on anatomy".

Where changing mores are concerned, Sandbrook believes the comforting myths of both left and right are to be discounted. When members of the Rolling Stones were prosecuted for drugs offences, "it was the general public, not the supposed Establishment, that wanted to see the Stones behind bars". Elsewhere, Sandbrook cites a 1970 survey of women which found that fewer than one in 10 single women had ever used the Pill, but says that a boom in early marriages and the birthrate imply "a consistent belief in the institutions of marriage and the family". However much right-wingers complained of burgeoning promiscuity, the picture that emerged from one survey was "of a settled, conservative people, a little more tolerant of extra-marital sex than in 1950, but not much". The most significant social change of the 1960s, he concedes, was in the role of women: "a revolution with its roots deep in British social history, but a revolution nonetheless".

A New Society editorial in November 1967 hazarded that the British people in the 1960s preferred incremental prosperity to disturbances of the status quo. As for the much-vaunted counter-culture, Sandbrook dismisses it as historically insignificant, quoting a former underground activist. "Perhaps its only legacy, he mused, was that it became more respectable for middle-class people 'to get jobs like being a wheelwright, or a furniture restorer in Norfolk'. Otherwise, he said, 'I can't think of anything in this country that wouldn't have come anyway.'"